Rewards and Punishment

Traditional concept of motivation (here is a link) hinge upon the crucial concept of ‘Rewards’. Generally, a reward is a tangible object that is presented after the occurence of a particular set of actions, generally positive. The aim is to ensure repeated occurence of the similar action. Rewards are supposed to be more effective if presented in the immediate aftermath of the ‘positive’ action rather than after a time-gap.

I have always been a bit ambivalent towards ‘rewarding’. The underlying cause is because I tend to view rewards as ‘controlling knobs’ in the same category as Punishments. So, for example, a punishment is a deterrent action that is meted out after the occurence of a particular set of actions, generally negative and undesirable. The aim is to prevent repeated occurence of similar action. Thus, by a not-so-long-chalk, rewards and punishment are two sides of the same coin in the realm of motivation. I don’t like ‘controlling knobs’. To me, they appear as artificial constructs that are unnatural. However, the most important annoyance that I notice is that for both the reward-giver and the reward-taker, they have a tendency to become addictive and habit forming.

Now nothing is wrong with doing good work repeatedly and getting appreciated for it. That happens everyday. The implied danger is that rewards, since they are ‘controlling knobs’ tend to provide incentive to positive behaviour. And, lack of the rewards, in many cases (that I have noticed) tend to not produce the same quality of output as compared to when rewards were announced. For long, the necessity of rewards have been put in the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or in the context of hygiene factors. Either way, from a personal interpretation of the theories, rewards should not be mixed up with ‘fringe benefits’ and thus form part of the ‘hygiene quotient’. In a fairly complex (but not subtle) way, rewards tend to be reductive of the work done. Think for a moment how often we hear the word ‘awesome’ or ‘cool’ or even the phrase ‘awesome coolness’ (or their cousins). Overuse and over extension of the concept of cool results in the relativity of an unique work being lost. Rewards, I think, tend to be similarly reductive.

Quoting from a book by Alfie Kohn:

Managers do not motivate their employees by giving them […] or new status symbols. Rather, employees are motivated by their own inherent need to succeed at a challenging task. The manager’s job, then, is not to motivate people to get them to achieve; instead, the manager should provide opportunities for people to achieve so they will become motivated.

So, it could appear that the actual catalyst towards achieving motivation is providing challenges. In fact, adding choice, collaboration and creativity to the already present concept of challenges could be a potent mix towards achieving an ‘engaged workforce’. In a nutshell, the problem that I have with rewards can be summed up as:

  • rewards tend to be an implicit punishment towards those who did not receive a reward
  • rewards tend to get people to do uninteresting things by providing a wrong kind of incentive
  • rewards tend to be habit forming
  • rewards tend to discourage collaboration (since generally, in the end there is a single winner)
  • rewards tend to discourage risk taking choices (since rewards are for repeat occurence of one single good habit)

I don’t have an answer or an alternative in a way Alfie writes in his articles. However, given that any organization desires to have smart people blowing away challenges through creative solutions, I don’t seem to buy into the idea that constant rewarding is the way towards getting things done.

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